A diverse array of ways to Connect with the West in April 16 concert by NOVA Chamber Music Series

There has been a decent spate of Utah arts and cultural events in recent months that flesh out a more comprehensive history of the American West. They include theatrical productions about Utah historian Juanita Brooks (Pygmalion Theatre Company) and Wallace Thurman (Plan-B Theatre, which opens this week). This month, Repertory Dance Theatre will present a work inspired by the Bears Ears monument while Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company premieres a new work this week about the Great Salt Lake. One of the most expansive offerings is the touring exhibition at Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA), Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea.

On Sunday, April 16, the NOVA Chamber Music Series adds to the cultural landscape a concert Connect with the West, featuring works highlighting the mating calls of the greater-sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, the significance of thunder and lightning, a set of art songs based on letters by the woman popularly known as Calamity Jane and a piano quintet by one of the most widely known 20th century American composers who had a short residency at Utah State University. The concert will take place at 3 p.m. in the Libby Gardner Hall at The University of Utah.

Nicolás Lell Benavides.

The concert features a world premiere, Lek by Nicolás Lell Benavides,  Nuevomexicano composer who now lives and works in California. As noted in a feature profile published last month in The Utah Review, Benavides has cultivated a creative identity as a composer that comprises many layers.

One of those layers is engaging the conversation about eco-citizenship and nature conservation. Commissioned by the Fry Street Quartet for NOVA, Lek, is a work for string quartet and electronic recording (with Mike Cottle performing). The recorded parts feature the mating sounds and calls of the greater-sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse that Benavides collected in Utah. The title refers to the consistent location the birds use every year for mating between February and April. Lek comes from a Norwegian word, which ornithologists use to connote a playground. The natural surroundings for these grouse species have been threatened for many decades for various reasons  including changes in the wildfire cycle due to the presence of non-native invasive plants, and human impacts, including energy development, the placement of electricity transmission lines and the construction of rural subdivisions.

Simply, it is a joyful piece (playfully referred to as a “bird sex tape”) about dating and mating. Benavides has assembled the piece where each of the quartet members play a role in this natural mating dance. With the grouses, it actually is the female who decides which of the males will win the chance to mate. 

For hours, the sagebrush grouse males will make sounds that resemble swish pop swish pop, as they strut around in circles with their chests puffed out, in order to win the female’s attention. The sharptailed grouse uses grunts and clucks in their tough dude style of dance. The recordings are nature’s version of the sex tape. As for the string quartet, one instrument represents the female and the remainder represents the male. As for which of the string players gets the mating prize, Benavides stays silent, preferring to let the premiere reveal the winner in the mating contest.

Commissioned by Arraymusic for a music mini-festival in Toronto in 2019, (Bury Me) Where The Lightning [Will] Never Find Me, which will receive its Utah premiere, is scored for violin, cello, clarinet and percussion. It is part of an ongoing series of works by Raven Chacon which touch on thunder and lightning.

Raven Chacon. Photo: Adam Conte.

Focused on the history of the landscape, Chacon was inspired by the 2003 book How Early America Sounded by Richard Cullen Rath (Cornell University Press). The book considers how Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans found their respective significance of meaning in the soundscapes of their surroundings from 1600 to 1770. Various interpretations of thunder and lightning are highlighted frequently throughout the text.

In fact, the title of Chacon’s work comes from a specific reference in Rath’s book (p. 39): “In the eighteenth century, Phillis, an enslaved African American from Connecticut, asked to be buried under a tree, when she died, ‘where the lightning [will] never find me.’”

However, Chacon was drawn to the book’s discussion about the shared Native American belief that acknowledged it was not lightning but thunder which could kill one, as it was understood as the sign of an otherworldly being. Thus, thunder was actually a protective force, unlike the European-American casting of it as an angry god seeking its retribution or vengeance. 

(Bury Me) Where The Lightning [Will] Never Find Me followed from Chacon’s 2003 work titled Atsiniltł’iye (which is the Diné word for lightning). He continued his exploration of lightning in 2020 with Old Song, scored for two cellos, bass clarinet and percussion. 

Libby Larsen.

The music in (Bury Me) seeks to recreate the zigzagging effects of lightning, incorporating them into melodic and rhythmic lines as well as dynamic changes in tempo. Instructions for string instrumentalists might include circular bowing patterns or a zigzag from sul ponticello to sul tasto. Percussion is prominent in Chacon’s works because he sees the potential for metaphor in its theatrical possibilities. In (Bury Me), the percussion includes matraca, thundersheet, floor tom, sandpaper and superball. Chacon seeks to present percussion not exclusively as a timbral instrument but for its narrative possibilities to subvert or even unwind the meter of the composition. 

Chacon won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2022 for Voiceless Mass, a work for chamber orchestra and pipe organ. His graphically notated scores for his works also have been featured in gallery exhibitions. Chacon also composed the score for the documentary film Lakota Nation vs. the United States, which received its premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. 

From Libby Larsen, one of America’s foremost and prolific composers, the 1998 song cycle Songs from Letters: Calamity Jane to her daughter Janey will be performed. The lore about Calamity Jane continues to resonate today. Martha Jane Cannary (or Canary), who was born in 1852, was 14 when her family came to Salt Lake City, shortly after her mother died. However, her father also died shortly after arriving in Utah. Jane now was the head of the household and led her family back to Wyoming two years later. She worked all sorts of jobs and, of course, some of those tales suggest that she also was a sex worker.

In downtown Salt Lake City, a 5,000-square-foot mural honoring more than 250 women who have made an impact in Utah is on the east side of the Dinwoody Building (37 West 100 South). One of the figures represented is Calamity Jane. The Utah Women mural was created by Jann Haworth and Alex Johnston, with contributions from 178 artists.

It is unclear if indeed Jane sent the letters to her daughter, because the letters appeared in a diary discovered after Jane died. Also, their provenance has been questioned because Jane is believed to have been illiterate. Larsen takes this into account, by emphasizing that what matters in the song texts is less about the authenticity than it is about being representative of the resilient character Calamity Jane embodied. 

Roy Harris.

A piano quintet by Roy Harris rounds out the concert. In 1948, Harris, then one of the nation’s best known composers, moved to Logan, Utah, with his wife, Johana, one of the most widely sought concert pianists, and their three children. Harris’ residency at Utah State University was the first of a series of composer residencies he would take on at several colleges and universities. 

The late 1940s was a time of explosive growth in university enrollment, thanks to the GI Bill and Utah State benefited from the trend. The Harrises significantly boosted the music school’s profile as teachers and as performers. In a November 17, 1948 long form profile published in the Herald Journal, Logan’s newspaper, the impact of their presence on the community musical life was evident. For example, during the year-long residency, Johana performed approximately 30 concerts either as orchestral soloist, recitalist or chamber musician.

The composer publicly expressed his hopes for Cache Valley’s musical potential. “There is every reason to believe that a valley which has the grandeur and beauty and fruitfulness of Cache Valley, and the self-sustaining independence, should nourish a genuine musical culture. But, of course, that depends on the will of the people. Men always produce what they deeply desire. If they want musicians and poets and painters, and want them sufficiently, they will have them. If they want only farmers and football players, they will have them.”

That certainly has come to fruition not just in Cache Valley but also in Salt Lake City, along with other sections of the state.

For more information and tickets, see the NOVA website

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